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Financial Elder Abuse (“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of Mom”)

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By Sylvana Rinehart, Certified Concierge Care Advisor

Elder financial abuse has been on my mind lately because of a continuing education session, and a recent comment by my sister-in-law about when her mother was diagnosed with Dementia due to Parkinson’s. I would like to caution the reader that this article’s intent is solely to raise one’s awareness and should not be interpreted as alarmist or threatening. Slowly and subtly like a spider casting its web, my sister-in-law noticed that mother was surrounded by newly found “family members” who were professing their love for her. She was happy to be surrounded by these people – who had ignored her during her aging years – as they took her out for car rides, meals, and shopping. Guess who was footing the bill?

Every month, the Concierge Care Advisors team gets together for continuing education, sometimes with speakers to help us better understand topics of relevance in our roles as advisors. Recently we were able to spend an extended period of time with an experienced Elder Law Attorney, who patiently responded to all our questions about elder financial abuse and what to do if abuse is suspected. My two major takeaways were that most financial elder abuse is perpetrated by a family member who has gained the perceived trust and created a symbiotic relationship with the elder. And if we, as advisors in the eldercare field, see or suspect something we should say something. In retrospect, I wish my sister-in-law had noticed what was going on earlier on in mother’s journey with dementia and that she would have said something at the time. I have to take into account this happened in the early nineties when there was not much talk about Alzheimer’s and dementia related diseases. Unfortunately, none of the physicians forewarned my sister-in-law about the pitfalls she might encounter while caring for a person with memory impairment.

According to the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA), one in nine seniors has reported being abused, neglected or exploited within the last year; and one in twenty seniors has indicated some form of perceived financial mistreatment. Although massively underreported, financial exploitation is increasingly becoming a rampant form of abuse among aging adults, particularly those with cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. These crimes are now so widespread that elder financial abuse is often called “the crime of the twenty-first century.” Unfortunately, most abusers are close friends, acquaintances, or family members who take advantage of situations of cognitive decline and diminished capacity; in fact, NAPSA reports that 90 percent of abusers are family members or trusted others. We all know that financial abuse can take many forms, from soliciting for fake charities to telemarketing scams and identity theft, but we frequently see families who seem oblivious and then helpless when it comes to abuse from a family member.

What might be some of the signs of elder financial abuse executed by a trusted family member?

  • Forging the elderly person’s signature on checks or other documents
  • Having the elderly person sign a will, deed, or power of attorney listing the perpetrator as the one who is responsible for the elderly person
  • Promising to give the elderly person lifelong care in exchange for financial gains
  • Using the possessions or property of the elderly person without their permission
  • Perpetrating fraud, which is the use of trickery, false pretenses, deception or other dishonest acts in order to gain access to the person’s finances
  • Perpetrating cons or other confidence games in order to gain the trust of the elderly person
  • Charging things against the elderly person’s credit cards without the authorization of the cardholder
  • The perpetrator shows an inordinate interest in how much money the victim is spending and promising to save money in exchange for care

What might lead a family member to this?

  • They feel like the elderly person’s belongings are rightfully theirs, and they stand to inherit money or possessions when the elderly person dies
  • They have financial difficulties, a tendency to gamble or have problems with illicit drugs or alcohol
  • Undiagnosed or recognized mental illness and life-long co-dependency on the elderly person
  • They may express fears that the elderly person will use up all of their savings money to care for illnesses, depriving the perpetrator of their inheritance
  • They may feel negatively toward siblings or other family members and want to keep them from inheriting the possessions of the elderly person

As parents live longer, children have to wait longer to benefit from any proceeds of the family estate they may be counting on to pay off a mortgage or take extended leave from work, leading to so-called inheritance impatience – a trait that can often prompt fraudulent appropriation. It can begin mildly, with the occasional misuse of a person’s pin number, before escalating into fraud. Frequently the elderly do not understand the value of their assets, most often their home, and don’t quite understand their current financial situation

Financial exploitation in the elderly can be prevented by having a conversation with the senior before he or she develops memory loss or has an emergency. Yes, it is sometimes hard to have these conversations as I can attest. I had just started in the field and had to ask the gentleman who was well into his nineties about his finances and to my utter surprise he replied: “young lady, I would rather talk to you about my sex life than my finances!”

In closing, recalling the advice of the Elder Law Attorney who spoke to the Advisors: “See something, say something.” If it is life threatening – Call 911. Anyone suspecting abuse, call Washington State Adult Protective Services 1-877-734-6277 (best to call them and speak to a representative), Washington State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program 1-800-562-6028 or the police.

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